Shadows Of The Damned is an odd game to play when it’s a blazing hot day outside. But while the sun shines outside my window, and people queue up to buy 99 flakes from an ice-cream van, I’m exploring the gore-spattered depths of hell.
This is, however, a vision of hell dredged from the strange imagination of Goichi Suda, whose demented mind previously brought us the unforgettably quirky killer 7 and No More Heroes games, so in place of fire and brimstone, we have gothic architecture and dick jokes.
If you can imagine Dante’s Divine Comedy filtered through the movie-making sensibility of Robert Rodriguez, you’re somewhere close to Shadows Of The Damned’s tone. It’s the kind of game that showers you in blood and gore one minute, and then makes snickering, puerile jokes about erections the next.
Beneath its rather contrived schlock horror exterior, Damned is a conventional third-person shooter. The influence of Shinji Mikami is in evidence from its opening scenes, and the game is, to all intents and purposes, a faster-paced reworking of Resident Evil: 4, with more action and less polish around the edges.
You control a character by the name of Garcia Hotspur, a tattoo-covered stud who looks more like the lead singer of a heavy metal band than a demon hunter. But thanks to his talking staff and transforming firearm Johnson, he’s more than capable of taking on anything the denizens of hades can throw at him.
This is just as well, since Garcia’s girlfriend Paula has been kidnapped by a powerful boss demon called Fleming, who’s dragged Paula off into the furthest recesses of the underworld. Enraged, Garcia flings himself into the closing portal after them.
It turns out that hell, as imagined by Mikami and Suda, looks a little bit like Prague in winter, but with roaming ghouls in place of drunken stag parties. There are cobbled streets closed off with stone architecture and iron railings. There are sinister statues and black towers lurking in the foggy distance. And then there are demons, which come in a variety of flavours, all of them unpleasant.
Rank-and-file demons are most quickly despatched with a well-aimed headshot. Others are shrouded in a shield of protective darkness, which must be blasted away with a special light shot before you can take apart their vulnerable bodies. Still others are clad in armour, which needs a blast from shotgun to remove (they’re called Skullcussioners here, but we all know they’re shotguns really).
As well as his Skullcussioner, Garcia has his Boner (stop chortling at the back – it’s a semi-automatic pistol) and the Teether (a machine gun), which can all beupgraded to more powerful weapons as you collect blue gems.
Each gun can fire both regular bullets and the light shots mentioned earlier. Light shots are vital in specific sections of the game, and are used to expel darkness, which gives strength to demons, but causes Garcia serious damage if he’s exposed to it for too long.
Light shots are therefore the player’s key to solving the game’s occasional puzzle elements. Expelling darkness is frequently achieved by shooting switches – and this being a Suda 51 game, the switches come in the form of glowing, mounted heads of goats. Sometimes you’ll have to hunt around a little bit to find the goat heads, and at other times you’ll have to prevent demons from climbing up walls and switching their protective light back off.
There are other occasions, too, where you’ll have to use the darkness for your own ends. While standing in it can cause damage, there are certain switches and weak points on enemies that can only be seen while under its shroud.
You’ll find at least one of these manifold elements in each section of the game, and there are many, many others besides. There are fish-like creatures that emit light, which lead a path through dark corridors. There are locked gates that can only be opened by feeding them strawberries or brains hidden elsewhere.
All of this, along with the relentless waves of demons, gives the game a frenetic pace, and it’s fortunate that, although Damned feels extremely similar to Resident Evil 4, its creators have made Garcia more agile than RE4‘s Leon. He can run (achieved by holding down the left stick and the R1 button, which is a little fiddly when you’re under pressure), he can roll out of harm’s way, and mercifully, he can actually move while he’s shooting.
Blowing away demons makes up the larger percentage of Damned’s gameplay, and it’s fun, if a little repetitive. There are some camera issues when Garcia’s fighting in a confined space, where it’s almost impossible to see what you’re aiming at, but for the most part, the game’s weapons feel meaty and punchy, and blowing the heads and limbs off demons is dependably satisfying, even if these antagonists seldom intimidate in the RE4‘s terrifying Los Ganados did back in 2005.
There are, unfortunately, a few problems with Shadows Of The Damned, though how damaging they are to the experience overall will almost certainly depend on what you expect from a 2011 third-person shooter.
First of all, Damned is extremely linear, and appears to have been designed on a piece of graph paper. The story’s divided up into five acts, which in turn are separated out into between one and six chapters. These chapters are then divided up into quite small spaces which, whether they’re set in a street, forest or sewer, are essentially locked rooms. How you unlock the room and get to the next varies (kill three demons, shoot out a lock), but this extremely regimented, compartmental approach to Damned’s design gives it a quite mechanical, stilted feel.
There’s seldom much of an opportunity to really get into the atmosphere and rhythm of the game, since your attention is constantly being interrupted by a pause while the next bit of action loads, or a jarring screen prompt whenever Garcia has to jump out of a window or open a gate.
Curiously, it’s only during Damned’s many boss-battles that the game actually opens up, with larger areas to dash around in. This is partially because some of the bosses here are absolutely huge and, since this is a Japanese shooter, often involve finding a glowing weak spot and blasting it until the infernal thing finally expires.
In some instances, these encounters can be quite breathtaking. There’s an extremely odd boss at the end of one act, which involves fighting a demon called George riding a defecating horse. In other instances, the task of finding a way of killing these gigantic monsters can become protracted and tiresome. If you found some of the bosses in Capcom’s Lost Planet frustrating, you probably won’t warm to some of the creatures Damned throws at you either.
Much of what I’ve described in the previous few paragraphs will either have you clicking the back button, or completely unperturbed. For those of us well versed in the likes of Resident Evil 4 or 5, Lost Planet, or Platinum Games’ hugely underrated Vanquish will already know roughly what to expect from a Japanese third-person shooter, and for better or worse, Shadows Of The Damned shows all the characteristics of those that came before it.
What makes Shadows Of The Damned more than just another shooter, though, is its story and script. Again, its puerile, violent and often downright vulgar excesses mean it won’t be for everyone, but most people will have probably figured out whether or not the game was for them by just looking at a trailer on YouTube.
As repetitive and frustrating as Damned gets, you’re always spurred on by the bickering relationship between Garcia and his friend Johnson, or by the weird storybooks that you’ll find just before you meet an area boss. You’ll want to keep playing to discover the next horrible event in Garcia’s story, as his journey leads further into darkness.
Not everything that Suda an Mikami have packed into the game’s campaign (which lasts for about eight hours or so) will inspire you, but there’s always another weird demon, catchy line of dialogue, or unexpectedly bloody moment lurking round the corner. Then there are power-ups and extra ammo, which are puked up by a helpful shopkeeper, and vending machines that sell life-giving booze (trust me, it makes far more sense when you play the actual game). There are even a couple of cool old-school 2D shooting sequences, which I won’t spoil by describing in detail here.
The game’s like a gigantic collection of 80s video nasties, or snippets from them, all lovingly chopped up and placed together in chaotic, random arrangements. There are nods here to classic movies such as Evil Dead that will delight horror fans, and the whole game is shot through with a camp sensibility that evokes the atmosphere of cheap 70s cinemas and old Roger Corman movies.
Unpolished, retro and uneven though it sometimes is, Shadows Of The Damned is still well worth your time, particularly if you’re partial to shooting things from an over-the-shoulder perspective in any case. It’s not a classic, as some of the games that have influenced it are, but Damned is still, as Garcia might say, rather magnifico.
You can rent or buy Shadows Of The Damned at Blockbuster.co.uk.
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